Bookies' odds make way for decimalised age

Chris McGrath bids farewell to the colourful vocabulary that will fall victim to the decimalisation of horse racing
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So farewell then, Burlington Bertie. It’s a pity to see you go, but it seems the young people just don’t think your way any more. As one of the quaintest examples of the bookmaker’s idiom, “Burlington Bertie” is under threat. It is the “tic-tac” code for odds of 100-30 – the sort of fraction set to disappear as a result of new proposals to broaden the appeal of horseracing.

Racing For Change, a cross-industry project designed to shed the sport’s arcane image, is planning to trial decimal odds one weekend this spring. Assuming that the experiment is received reasonably well, the bookmakers will be going decimal – four decades after the currency in their satchels.

Fractional odds date back to the days of pounds, shillings and pence. And while they should not be at all formidable for anyone with a rudimentary grasp of mathematics, the sport is keen to assume nothing in its search for fresh blood.

The whole premise of tic-tac was to mystify onlookers. Historically the tic-tac man would secretly communicate wagers being laid among the bookmakers on British racecourses, using hand signals given a degree of popular currency by the Channel 4 pundit, John McCririck – himself a former bookmaker. The tic-tac man would often wear white gloves to help the ring read his signals.

There are spoken formulae, too, still in routine use by on-course bookmakers – not just between themselves, and their clerks, but also with professional punters whose familiarity earns them the soubriquet “faces”. “Burlington” belongs to this argot, which includes some rhyming slang and backslang, as well as words that make no apparent sense.

You hear stories of lifelong betting men who learned to count on their father’s knee. “Ear-ole” for 6-4. “Bottle” for 2-1. “Carpet” for 3-1. And so on.

The dilemma facing reformers is that this type of thing can itself stimulate curiosity, being integral to the colourful traditions of the Turf.

There will be Canutes. The mystery of the betting ring, after all, is also the fellowship of the ring. But Racing For Change is acutely conscious that the sport has an ageing audience, and is prepared to take risks in order to tempt the holy grail of 18- to 24-year-olds.

And, of course, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Tic-tac men themselves have been rendered largely redundant by changes in the betting ring. The market is increasingly focused on Betfair, and those bookmakers who do need to communicate significant business can rely on earphones and radios. There would have been dozens of tic-tac men in the ring at Cheltenham or Royal Ascot only a few years ago; now there might only be a couple.

But the bigger picture emboldens the reformers’ chairman, Chris McFadden. “It is always difficult to break with tradition,” he said, “but sometimes tradition holds a sport back and we think this is the case with fractional odds. We need to overhaul betting language that is alien to anybody who went to school since the UK went decimal in 1971.”

The reformers can argue not only that decimal odds are more accessible than, say, 15-8 or 11-4, but also that the established betting market is increasingly conversant in decimal odds.

The biggest single change in the modern wagering landscape, since the legalisation of betting shops in 1961, has been the arrival of Betfair. During the past decade, the pioneering betting exchange has gone from nowhere to generating huge pools on horseracing and other sports. Almost every serious punter will now be familiar with a betting exchange – where every transaction is decimal.

The big bookmaking chains, acknowledging this, already give their online clients the option of decimal odds. Simon Clare, trading director of Coral, has contributed to the Racing For Change project and describes the advent of decimal odds as “inevitable”. How soon depends simply on striking a balance “so that regular customers are not alienated, while younger customers are encouraged to look at betting on horseracing”.

The betting ring is notoriously conservative, and only recently replaced blackboards with digital displays. But McCririck, never averse to controversy, warned yesterday that decimal odds could conceivably work in bookies’ favour.

Between 2-1 and 3-1, traditional starting prices will tend to be returned only in fractions of 9-4, 5-2 or 11-4. Decimal returns would express these as 2.25-1, 2.5-1 and 2.75-1 – but would potentially offer many shades in between.

McCririck predicts that bookmakers will slow down any easing in the odds as a result. “If a horse is going out from 7-2, it can only go to 4-1,” he reasoned. “Now it’s going to be 36-10, then 37-10, 38-10, 39-10. It has been brought in as a PR exercise, to bring in younger people, and quite rightly so. But in the end punters will lose. These changes don’t work in favour of the punters, and bookmakers will soon realise the advantage they have.”

How tic-tac translates

Evens - Scotch

Derived from another word for a scratched line ‘/’ which is used on the bookie’s board to denote odds of evens. (Decimal odds: 2.00)

2/1 - Bottle

Modern rhyming slang from “Bottle of Glue” is one theory, but the term appears to be older and probably derives from “Bottle of Spruce” rhyming with Deuce which means 2. Spruce incidentally was a type of beer. (Decimal odds: 3.00)

3/1 - Carpet

Originates from 1800s prison vernacular when the phrase “carpet stretch” referred to a prison sentence of three months because it reputedly took three months to produce a regulation sized piece of carpet in the prison workshops. Another possibility is that folklore has it that prisoners would be given the luxury of a piece of carpet in his cell after three years. (Decimal odds: 4.00)

100/30 - Burlington Bertie

Cockney rhyming slang which takes its name from the 1900 music hall song of the same name. It should be 10/3, but the rhyming nickname is probably the only reason it has survived from the days when all bookies odds were 100/something. (Decimal 4.333)

4/1 Rouf

Used simply because it is ‘four’ spelt backwards. Other odds described like this include Exes [Corr] (6), Neves (7), Enin (9) and Net (10). (Decimal odds: 5.00)

9/2 – On the shoulder

Derived from the tic-tac hand gesture used by bookies to denote odds. 9/2 is shown by a tap on the shoulder. (Decimal odds: 5.50)

5/1 - Ching

The meaning is unclear, but it is suggested that it is a phonetic simplification derived from the Spanish for five which is “ Cinco”. (Decimal odds: 6.00)

10/1 - Cockle

From the cockney rhyming slang cockle and hen. (Decimal odds: 11.00)

12/1 – Net and Bice

It is thought that “Bice” originates from the French “Bis”, meaning twice. Bice can assume the meaning “Two”. Using Bice to represent 2 and Net as the slang for 10, Net and Bice is ten and two which is twelve. (Decimal odds: 13.00)

25/1 – Pony

Derives from the pony on an Indian 25 Rupee banknote and was used by British soldiers serving in India. Also called Macaroni, which is cockney rhyming slang for Pony. (Decimal odds: 26.00)